Steve Martin and Dave Hickey at LACMA: Talking about art was fine with this audience


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‘People in L.A. want to hear Steve Martin talk about art,’ declared Andrea Grossman as she introduced a discussion between Martin and art critic Dave Hickey at LACMA on Thursday night.

Grossman, of the nonprofit Writers Bloc, which organized the event with LACMA, was referring to a debacle in November at New York’s 92nd Street Y. Audiences there were disappointed that Martin talked only about his new novel, ‘An Object of Beauty,’ which is set in the New York art world of the 1990s, rather than his career as an actor. The Y issued full refunds.


No such corrective was in the offing this time. The 600-seat Bing Theater was sold out, with the first quarter of the auditorium roped off in appropriate Hollywood fashion. At least two other multi-talented stars were in attendance: actor, comedian, and director Carl Reiner and magician and actor Ricky Jay.

The crowd, which skewed older, seemed to be a mix of art lovers and book lovers. L.A. artist Dennis Hollingsworth said he was there primarily to see Hickey, whom he described as a provocative, dissenting voice in the art world. He also found Martin’s deep interest in art encouraging. ‘There are less than 10 collectors of consequence in L.A.,’ he said, adding that he thinks Martin could be a role model for increasing Hollywood’s involvement in the art world. Seated nearby, Ruth Glass approached the discussion from a more literary angle. She said she liked Martin’s previous novel, ‘Shopgirl,’ and was looking forward to reading the new one.

For those who hadn’t already read the book, which came out in late November, the discussion may have seemed a bit disjointed, as Martin and Hickey breezed through characters and plot points without much explanation. Their main topic was Martin’s take on the art world, which, through the exploits of his ambitious, narcissistic protagonist, comes across as an amoral and materialistic place. Rather than leave people guessing, Martin chose to use the real names of auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s as well as those of dealer Larry Gagosian and New Yorker art critic Peter Schjedahl. Martin noted that despite what some reviewers thought, the book was not a satire. But perhaps, he said, ‘describing the art world as-is sounds like a satire.’

The conversation was also enlivened by Hickey’s wry turns of phrase. He described the book as a ‘French-y romance to mercantile ambition,’ adding that Martin has ‘never really written anything that’s not a little bit bent.’ Later, he described his own adventures in collecting, relating how he once bought a Cy Twombly, cheap, and sold it to fuel a ‘cocaine binge.’ Yet he also waxed poetic, professing an admiration for art objects as ‘travelers in time’ as they pass through the hands of various owners.

The last third of the talk was devoted to Martin’s collection, accompanied by slides, which gave it the air of an art history lecture. And perhaps with good cause: Martin has a penchant for what he called ‘the pleasure of the un-famous painter,’ including works by little-known 19th century American artists Jefferson David Chalfant, William Harnett and John Frederick Peto. He also showed images of 20th century works by Lawren Harris, whom he described as ‘Canada’s greatest painter,’ and American realist painter John Koch (‘a weird guy’).

In the end, both Martin and Hickey affirmed the beguiling power of art, independent of the machinations of the industry around it. ‘Business is business and art is art, and they don’t really intersect,’ Hickey said. Yet, during the question-and-answer session that followed, he admitted that he sometimes used criticism to ‘try to raise prices of things that are under-priced.’ It seems that the love of art is the art of compromise. As Hickey remarked, ‘As awful and grotesque as the party is, I want to keep coming to the party.’



Stephen Colbert talks art with Steve Martin, with help from Shepard Fairey et al.

-- Sharon Mizota

Above: After the conversation with Dave Hickey, Martin signed copies of his novel ‘An Object of Beauty,’ including one for Matas Kulikauskas, 9, of South Pasadena. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times